Edgar G. Ulmer, 1944
Starring: John Carradine, Nils Asther, Jean Parker, Ludwig Stössel
Women are being murdered in Paris, but designer Lucille is not afraid and makes a new friend, the strange but kind painter and puppeteer Gaston Morrell. They develop a mutual attraction and he commissions her to design costumes for a new puppet show. Unfortunately we quickly learn that Morrell is the killer, driven to murderous fury every time he paints. He strangles his mistress and dumps her body in the river. He is determined to kill no more, but his art dealer, Jean Lamarte, wants him to keep painting because of the high demand for his work.
One of the dead women is recognized in one of his paintings and Inspector Lefevre puts a policewoman, Francine, also Lucille’s sister, undercover on the case. Due to his greed, the art dealer convinces Morrell to do one more painting, as Francine is pretending to be the daughter of a local aristocrat who wants her portrait painted. When they are alone together, Francine confronts him and he strangles her with his tie. Lucille later recognizes the tie and confronts Morrell. He tells her he loves her and explains his sordid history. He fell in love with a prostitute who betrayed him just as his painting of her became famous and ever since, he must kill every woman he paints. Lefevre arrives in time to save Lucille and Morrell is chased through Paris by the police until he throws himself in the river and drowns.
As with his earlier, excellent The Black Cat, Ulmer’s Bluebeard has absolutely nothing to do with the source material it is named after. It feels much more like the earlier serial killer films coming out during this period, particularly John Brahm’s The Lodger, which I recently watched and can’t help comparing with Bluebeard. The plots are similar down to almost identical conclusions where the murderer, trying to resist his impulses because of his feelings for a beautiful woman, plunges himself into the river after a chase with the police. Unfortunately The Lodger is the superior film and it is difficult for me to think of Bluebeard as anything but second best.
Director Edgar G. Ulmer had a difficult time of it in Hollywood, though he had a fruitful beginning in Germany, working with F.W. Murnau. Bluebeard bears a close resemblance to other German expressionist horror films, particularly The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, though it suffers from the very low budget provided by poverty row studio PRC. The atmosphere, though moody, tense, and all around excellent, is not enough to compensate for a weak script with many filler scenes and flat characters. For example, the marionette show, a production of Faust, which opens the film is interesting, but feels like a way to pass the time.
While Bluebeard has nothing on Ulmer’s The Black Cat and is somewhat of a disappointment, it is worth seeing for fans of early serial killer-themed horror and for fans of John Carradine. Though I spent most of my youth thinking he had popped out of the womb as an old man, there is evidence in Bluebeard that, at one point, he was actually young. He does a good job here as Morrell, but I think he needed a little more screen time to ham it up, as he would later in his career.
There are a number of other familiar faces from B-horror films, including Jean Parker (Dead Man’s Eyes) as the leading lady, the dashing Nils Asther (Laugh, Clown, Laugh) as Inspector Lefevre, and George Pembroke (The Invisible Ghost) as Inspector Renard. Other than Carradine, I can’t say there is anything special about the acting, but the performances are serviceable and Nils Asther, known as the male Garbo, is always lovely to look at. He has a funny scene at an inquest involving a number of women painted by Morrell and it’s a shame he didn't have more screen time. Teala Loring (Charlie Chan film Dark Alibi) is also good as Lucille’s sister, a surprisingly strong female character, and her murder comes as a surprise.
Bluebeard is available in the Edgar G. Ulmer Archive collection, which includes Strange Illusion (1945), The Strange Woman (1946), and Daughter of Dr. Jekyll (1957). Also worth checking out are his two best films, Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi vehicle The Black Cat (1934) and the noir film Detour (1945). Bluebeard is also available alone in a cheap DVD edition.